How science is tackling this often unspoken, but common sports injury for women

Associate Professor Deirdre McGhee leans on a lab table with an open breast model.

On the football field, the cricket pitch or the netball court, even the best-fitting bra can leave girls and women with breast soreness — or worse.

Key points:

  • New research is targeting the frequency and awareness of breast injuries in community sport
  • A previous study found that 90 per cent of athletes at an elite level did not report their breast injuries
  • The University of Wollongong research team planned to present its data and findings during September

It was something National Rugby League Women (NRLW) player Shaniah Power simply put up with in her early playing years.

“They can definitely end up a little bit tender after a game,” Power said.

“People say things to me all the time like, ‘Does it hurt? Are you worried about it [my breasts]?’.”

Limited information

Research on breast health in sport is limited and in the past has been focused on elite athletes.

But a new study by the University of Wollongong is directing its attention to community sport in an effort to raise awareness among amateur female players and prevent injuries.

School of Medicine Associate Professor Deirdre McGhee, who was also co-founder and director at Breast Research Australia, said she wanted to fill the gap in knowledge at a community level.

“The strategy we use to improve the prevention and management will be different because community level sports do not have the same resources as elite athletes have,” she said.

Associate Professor Deirdre McGhee leans on a lab table with an open breast model.
Associate Professor Deirdre McGhee wants to spread awareness about breast injuries.(ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale)

Power wished she knew more about it years ago.

“I suffered an injury this NRLW season, where they suspected there might have been some slight tearing from the breast tissue,” she said.

“You can be quite self-conscious of it, and it doesn’t feel nice when they don’t feel secure.”

Uncomfortable encounters

The study was instigated by rugby union officials in Queensland’s Darling Downs, where female participation has exploded in popularity.

There are 150 women in senior ranks and about 600 teenage girls playing.

A woman with blonde hair stands in front of a tree and smilesA woman with blonde hair stands in front of a tree and smiles
Women in Downs Rugby coordinator Sue-Ann McGowan approached researchers.(Supplied: Sue-Ann McGowan)

Women in Downs Rugby coordinator Sue-Ann McGowan said she contacted researchers after witnessing an awkward encounter during an under 13 game when a “little girl came off the field”.

“I got to see this really uncomfortable situation between her and the [male] coach,” she said.

“She just said, ‘Oh, I’m really sore, I just got hit [in the breasts]’.

“He [the coach] didn’t know how to deal with that, or what to do or what to say, so I really felt for her and for him.

“I thought this is going to happen in every sport a woman ever does, let alone union.”

Gap in research

At the elite level, a survey by Breast Research Australia at UOW found 58 per cent of players had endured previous contact injury to their breast.

But a huge 90 per cent of those athletes did not report their injury.

Deirdre McGhee puts a white sports bra on a blue mannequin in a lab.Deirdre McGhee puts a white sports bra on a blue mannequin in a lab.
Associate Professor Deirdre McGhee says education about breast support is vital.(ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale)

The UOW research team will survey players and officials in rugby union, rugby league and cricket.

It will investigate the incidence and severity of breast pain and injury, bra-wearing behaviour and knowledge among female players.

It then plans to develop strategies for each code to improve knowledge and behaviour and improve prevention and management.

Dr McGhee said bras were “like a shoe”.

“We need to have a woman in each club, maybe who will lead the change in terms of education sessions and breast support.”

A ‘world first’

Dr McGhee said the Darling Downs rugby union code had embraced the initiative.

“This is a pioneer event and it’s great that the organisers of Downs Rugby have been so proactive to get this together,” she said.

“This is [the] first time in the world.

“And the first step in that is to raise awareness that these injuries occur, so we can get athletes to report them.”

The research team plans to present data from its findings in September.



Author: Ivan Robinson